Inside Sotheby’s: Diplomacy at its Best

By Roxane Zand, Sotheby’s Director, Middle East Department, and the editor of Sotheby’s Cultural Crossroads Blog:

There are lectures and then there are lectures. British Museum Director Neil Macgregor has perfected the art of lecturing and nowhere is this more apparent than in his speeches about the Cyrus Cylinder—one of the museum objects that defines our concept of democratic governance. On 6 March, His Excellency Sir Peter and Lady Westmacott hosted a select audience at the British Embassy in Washington DC to hear Neil speak about the relationship of this 2,500-yr old clay object to modern cultural and political issues.

… As with all great legacies, Cyrus’s decree has had an almost Biblical propensity for re-interpretation. The Founding Fathers in the US urged the Cyrus philosophy of religious plurality and tolerance; the Jews heralded its message of freedom for their people, and even President Ahmadinejad pointed to its advocacy of helping the oppressed, namely the Palestinians. The cylinder is on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery until 28 April.

For me, the key point of this seminal lecture was the fact that Cyrus’s archenemy Alexander saw fit to weep at the grave of perhaps one of the greatest rulers in history. Whoever has seized upon the extraordinary legacy of this “political prophet”, knows one thing above all: that his message was not just universal but timeless.

Read the article: Diplomacy at its Best

WUSA9: Ancient Proclamation Of Human Rights Displayed In US For The First Time

By Bruce Leshan, WUSA9:

Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Cyrus’ ancient Greek biography…
Alexander the Great wept at his tomb. Machiavelli and Caesar saw him as the ideal ruler. He’s celebrated in the Bible.
And the stories are all confirmed in an ancient cylinder unearthed in 1879.

“It really underscores the power of the object, how it speaks across time and space to so many different people,” says Freer|Sackler Chief Curator Massumeh Farhad.

Read the article: The Cyrus Cylinder, An Ancient Proclamation Of Human Rights, Displayed In US For The First Time

NPR: Persian Empire Treasure Begins US Tour

Renee Montagne of NPR’s Morning Edition talks to professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak of the University of Maryland about the history of this ancient cultural icon:

MONTAGNE: Now some have called this arrival of the Cyrus Cylinder to the U.S. a kind of soft diplomacy – a way to improve relations, if not to relations, then certain images. What do you think? Do you think it’ll have an effect?

KARIMI: Yes. In the history of cultural policy, it will be mentioned somehow. When two states fail to talk to one another and the desire is within the population of both countries to start some dialogue going, objects like this serve a central purpose. That is, they get people together, they make possible conversations – if not at the state level – at least people to people conversations.

Listen to the conversation and read the transcript: Persian Empire Treasure Begins US Tour

Smithsonian: The Cyrus Cylinder Goes on View at the Sackler Gallery

From the Smithsonian Blog:

Cyrus’s tolerant approach has had a lasting impact. According to MacGregor [Director of the British Museum], “For Europeans and Americans in the 18th century, there is only one political problem: How do you avoid the wars of religion that had devastated Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries? How do you create a state where people don’t kill each other for their faith? Everybody goes back to Cyrus.”

The exhibition entitled, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia,” features quotes and historical artifacts that trace the generations of political thinkers inspired by Cyrus’s philosophy. Thomas Jefferson studied the life of Cyrus; he owned two copies of a biography of the king.

Read the article: The Cyrus Cylinder Goes on View at the Sackler Gallery

Al-Monitor: A Reminder of Persian Legacy of Tolerance

By Barbara Slavin, Al-Monitor:

Thomas Jefferson, the [British] museum director noted, read the biography of Cyrus before drafting the Constitution while King George V referred to Cyrus in approving the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which the British government said it viewed with “favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Former US President Harry Truman is said to have exclaimed “I am Cyrus” when he went against the Washington establishment consensus and recognized the state of Israel. Jews were among those freed by Cyrus, who encouraged them to return and rebuild their temple at Jerusalem.

In a room adjacent to the cylinder at the Sackler gallery — where the exhibition will remain through April 28 before traveling to Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — the walls are covered with quotations about Cyrus from Aeschylus to Isaiah to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Shirin Ebadi, a modern Iranian human rights defender, wrote that “the charter of Cyrus the Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights.”

Read the article: “Cyrus Cylinder” A Reminder of Persian Legacy of Tolerance

Washington Post: An artifact with long history and many meanings

By Philip Kennicott, Washington Post:

Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler museums, argues that it is the susceptibility of the object to interpretation that makes it fascinating.

“For me, it is that element of contention that can provoke us to think,” he says. Raby acknowledges that the cylinder isn’t coming to the Sackler for new scholarly examination and study. Rather, it comes as a purely symbolic object, displayed in a two-room exhibition that focuses attention on the historical afterlife of Cyrus within Western culture.

Read the article: Sackler displaying Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact with long history and many meanings

Inside Sotheby’s: Cyrus Cylinder Makes Its Way to the Sackler

By Roxane Zand, Sotheby’s Director, Middle East Department, and the editor of Sotheby’s Cultural Crossroads Blog:

Nearly 350 guests from several continents gathered at the cocktail hour to view the gem of an exhibition curated by Dr John Curtis, with the involvement of Sackler’s Dr Massoumeh Farhad and Dr Julian Raby, the Gallery Director. The event also heralded the flagship project of IHF America—a diaspora cultural charity that began some 20 years ago in the UK.

… A glamorous gathering of high-profile guests was especially appreciative of both the message and timing of this cultural diplomacy. In his speech Neil Macgregor [Director of the British Museum] recognized the desire of the diaspora Iranian community to move beyond the confines of today’s political axis, and CNN legend Christiane Amanpour affirmed the same dynamic in her after-dinner dialogue with the BM Director.

Read the article: Cyrus Cylinder Makes Its Way to the Sackler

Reuters: Ancient decree of religious freedom starts U.S. tour

By Doina Chiacu, Reuters:

Cyrus’ declarations of tolerance, justice and religious freedom inspired philosophers and policymakers for centuries. Scholars say it shows that Cyrus allowed displaced Jews to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon and to rebuild the Temple.

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek historian and soldier Xenophon wrote “Cyropedia,” a text that portrays Cyrus as the ideal ruler and that greatly influenced Alexander the Great. Xenophon’s portrayal also carried weight with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas Jefferson owned two copies of the cylinder and it influenced his writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Read the article: Cyrus Cylinder, ancient decree of religious freedom, starts U.S. tour

AP: Cyrus the Great Artifact Shown in US for 1st Time

By Brett Zongker, the Associated Press:

“Only the Americans get to the Cyrus model of a state that’s equidistant from every faith so that you acknowledge the value of faith, but you don’t endorse any one variety,” MacGregor [Director of the British Museum] said. “Of course, we’re all trying now to live in cities and countries that have an unprecedented diversity in faith, language, ethnicity … and this is the first model of someone who got it to work for several hundred years.”

Read the article: Cyrus the Great Artifact Shown in US for 1st Time

The Cyrus Cylinder US Tour Launches in DC

With an inaugural reception and dinner, and an exclusive viewing of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and the Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, the US tour of the Cyrus Cylinder officially starts on March 5th. Between now and March 9th, which is when the exhibition is open to the public, press and media will have access to the exhibition and key individuals including curators from the British Museum and the Sackler Gallery, as well as trustees and management of IHF America, the official sponsor of the tour, for interviews, filming, and photography.

We invite you to view a brief video and photos of the launch event at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

You can also see images of the Cyrus Cylinder exhibition at the Sackler Gallery.

You can also visit the latest press coverage of the tour.

WSJ: A King’s Manifesto

The Wall Street Journal talks about Cyrus, the Cylinder, the tour which starts on Saturday March 9th, and also talks to John Curtis, the curator of the exhibition at the British Museum:

What makes [the words from the Cyrus Cylinder] unique are the conciliatory words that follow, which include:

“I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements,

and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus—to the fury of the lord of the gods—had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord,

I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries,

every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds . . .”

Read the full article, A King’s Manifesto.

Cyrus Cylinder Makes First Appearance in DC

Roll Call writes about the debut of the Cyrus Cylinder in Washington, DC:

The show, opening Saturday, marks the first U.S. appearance of one of the most celebrated objects from antiquity: the Cyrus Cylinder, a football-shaped relic inscribed with orders issued by King Cyrus the Great after his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C., credited by Hebrew scripture for repatriating exiled Jews and allowing them to return to Jerusalem.

Read the article: Cyrus Cylinder Makes First Appearance in DC.

CSM: Symbol of Persian tolerance heads to US

By Scott Peterson, The Christian Science Monitor:

“The ideas of the Persian tradition permeate the Western tradition, and it’s there at a profound level. The idea that we are separate, individual…that these ideologies cannot coexist, is an illusion,” said Karen Armstrong [well-known religious scholar] “And sometimes it’s easier to focus on a particular object like that, to look at its history, to see its effects…the way cultures have always interacted and melded with one another creatively.”

Read the article: The Cyrus Cylinder, symbol of Persian tolerance, heads to US

Guardian: Breaking Down Mistrust

Ian Black writes for the Guardian:

The hope, says the IHF, is that the exhibition — the cylinder and other objects — will appeal to the substantial community of expatriate Iranians living in the US (many of them refugees from the 1979 revolution) as well as to American Jews accustomed to the mutual hostility between the Islamic Republic and Israel, including outlandish Holocaust-denying statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Read the article: Can a text from ancient Persia break down mistrust between enemies?


Cohen, New York Times: Finding the Missing Word

Roger Cohen’s column in New York Times about the Cyrus Cylinder and its upcoming tour of the US includes what is probably the most beautiful and concise description of the significance of the Cyrus Cylinder, and the underlying multi-dimensional complexity that provides such rich context for this iconic object:

“What is it? A Babylonian artifact written by a Babylonian scribe about a Persian conqueror; prized by Iranians as an emblem of their civilization; valued by many Jews whose Bible gives credit for Cyrus’s acts not to a Babylonian God but to Jehovah; found in modern Iraq by British-sponsored archaeologists who acquired it from the Ottomans; exploited by the shah to underwrite his megalomania; a pre-Islamic text adopted by the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War as a symbol of past victories; a declaration compared to the U.S. Constitution because of what it says about peoples worshiping freely in a single state; and now an object that within the space of a few years has traveled to Tehran (where more than one million Iranians saw it) and to Washington.”

Read the article: Finding the Missing Word

And he is indeed right: It is possible to write a column about Iran without using the “N” word.

The Cyrus Cylinder Leaving the British Museum for the US (BBC Persian Video)

The Cyrus Cylinder Tour has official started… On February 19th Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF) and the British Museum held a “send-off” (بدرقه) event at the British Museum as the Cyrus Cylinder gets ready to leave the UK for its US tour.

The Cyrus Cylinder will be on display at five major museums across the US through this touring exhibition. The tour is arranged through a partnership between IHF America, the British Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Smithsonian Institution) where the Cyrus Cylinder will debut on March 9th, 2013.

This is BBC Persian’s coverage of the event (voice-over in Persian). For a version with English voice-over please scroll down and see the second video:

Below you can find the same video by Kasra Naji of BBC, with English voice-over. The two scholars interviewed on the video are Karen Armstrong (author, scholar, TED speaker) and John Curtis, the long-time Keepr of the Middle East Collection of the British Museum:

In her speech at the send-off event, Haleh Anvari, the Executive Director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, said:

“…our mission was defined: to support Iranian studies, to preserve and promote Iranian history, arts and culture. In these eighteen years, IHF has been able to achieve this rather extensive remit through close partnerships with world renowned scholars, universities and cultural institutions such as the British Museum.”

“We at the Iran Heritage Foundation are proud of our close association and friendship with the British Museum which has resulted in a historic first; The Cyrus Cylinder Tour of the US.”

Glasstire: Cyrus Cylinder Rolls in to Houston: Conqueror’s Ancient Edict Revered For Fairness, Oldness

From the article:

For many the cylinder is an Iranian national symbol: more than a million visitors viewed the artifact when it was on display in Tehran in 2010-2011. In 1971, The Shah of Iran’s pre-1979 government put it on display in Tehran to commemorate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy.

Read the full Glasstire article on the Cyrus Cylinder US tour.

BBC Persian: منشور کوروش به آمریکا میرود

From the article (in Persian):

آنچه که به منشور کوروش اهمیت ویژه ای می بخشد، اقدامات اعلام شده او به عنوان فرمانروای جدید بابل است.
در این فرمان، دین و فرهنگ قوم مغلوب مورد تایید و احترام قرار گرفته و همچنین اعلام شده است که مردمی که پس از شکست از بابلیان، به عنوان برده به این سرزمین آورده شده بودند از آزادی دینی و فرهنگی برخوردار می شوند و می توانند به سرزمین اصلی خود بازگردند.

Read the full BBC Persian article on the Cyrus Cylinder Tour.

New York Times: A British Museum Treasure Will Visit the United States

From the article:

Often referred to as “the first bill of human rights” because its inscription encourages freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire, it is a small clay object — not quite nine inches long — bearing an account, in Babylonian cuneiform, by Cyrus, the King of Persia of his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. The cylinder was found in what was once Babylon, now Iraq, in 1879 during a British Museum excavation and has been on display at the museum ever since. It is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world.

Read the full New York Times article on the Cyrus Cylinder Tour.

Guardian: Babylonian relic to visit US with historic message of tolerance

From the article:

For Jews and Christians, it is the object that – along with passages of Isaiah – records the end of Jewish exile in Babylon. In Iran, it has by turns been used as a symbol of the shah’s power and, most recently, when the cylinder toured to Tehran in 2010, was adopted as a rallying cry for Palestinian freedom by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For others, it is the first declaration of human rights, and an international symbol of religious tolerance. For Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, to which it belongs, it is the “first press release”.

Read the full Guardian article.

The Cyrus Cylinder tour announcement receives press coverage internationally

The announcement of the Cyrus Cylinder US tour was covered by a number of media outlets today, including the BBC 10PM TV News segment. Here are some of the highlights:


Cyrus Cylinder Tour Dates and Venues

The Cyrus Cylinder will start its tour in Washington in March 2013, and will tour five major museums along its way to Los Angeles where the tour will be concluded in December 2013:

Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
March 9th through April 28th 2013

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
May 3rd through June 14th 2013

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
June 20th through August 4th 2013

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
August 9th through September 22nd 2013

J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles, CA
October 2nd through December 2nd 2013


The British Museum Announces the Cyrus Cylinder US Tour

Today the British Museum publicly announced the 2013 US tour of the Cyrus Cylinder:

“The British Museum today announces that one of its most iconic objects, the Cyrus Cylinder, will tour to five major museum venues in the United States in 2013. This will be the first time this object has been seen in the US and the tour is supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.”

“The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. The Cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform (cuneiform is the earliest form of writing) on the orders of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530BC) after he captured Babylon in 539BC. It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation and has been on display ever since…”

You can read the full text of the BM press release, and we will follow up with the news coverage of the announcement.

TED Talk on Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder has been at the center of many stories and events. For a fascinating account of its role and importance in the context of international relations we encourage you to watch the TED talk by Dr. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museums, which was delivered upon returning the Cylinder from Iran in 2011:


The Significance of the Cyrus Cylinder

Clay cuneiform tablet fragment, 539-538 BC, Achaemenid

Clay cuneiform tablet fragment, 539-538 BC, Achaemenid

The Cyrus Cylinder has a cross-cultural significance. People from different backgrounds, nationalities, and religions recognize it as relevant and important. A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, on the second floor hallway. The main reason for this is how the Cyrus Cylinder is symbolic of tolerance and freedom.

The Cyrus Cylinder tells an amazing story: Cyrus conquers Babylon, and what does this king of kings, this greatest king chosen by god, this most powerful man in “the four corners of the world” do? He sets all the peoples free, lets them go back to their homes and homelands.

Most amazingly, he lets them recover their statues and gods – all the things that were confiscated as symbols of victory – and go back to their lives and religions, worshiping their gods in their own way and in their own temples. This is what sets the Cyrus Cylinder apart from a number of other ancient objects. The message is one of tolerance, peace, and multi-culturalism. It portrays a very modern way of ruling with pluralism and tolerance at its core. No wonder many have called the Cyrus Cylinder “the first bill of human rights.”

It is fascinating that 2600 years later, the Cyrus Cylinder still unites people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions in cherishing the wisdom of tolerance.

Iranians are proud of the Cyrus Cylinder because it was a Persian King who decided to break the tradition and allowed deported peoples to return home.

To Jewish people the story told by the Cyrus Cylinder is a magnificent one, as it corroborates the events in the Old Testament about King Cyrus allowing captive Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. In fact, in the book of Ezra, King Cyrus permits the Jewish exiled people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

Even the founding fathers of the United States sought inspiration from Cyrus, what he did in Babylon as described by the Cyrus Cylinder, and how he ran a country. Thomas Jefferson owned two personal copies of Xenophon’s book Cyropaedia – the Education of Cyrus – which was “a mandatory read for statesmen.”

What is the Cyrus Cylinder?

The Cyrus Cylinder has been called “the first declaration of human rights.” It is a barrel-shaped baked clay cylinder, and despite popular belief it’s not a big object: It’s about 23cm long and 10cm wide.

This clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform – a form of wedge-shaped writing – about Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) and his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, capturing Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king. The cylinder was discovered more than 130 years ago in the ruins of Babylon in Iraq. It was excavated in several fragments. The cylinder was glued together straight away, and was read by Theophilus Pinches and Henry Rawlinson at the British Museum.

The text on the Cylinder is a declaration about the Iran/Iraq war – not the one that started in 1980, but the one in 539 B.C., in the name of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great, resulting in the conquest of Babylon in 539. It establishes Cyrus as a king from a lineage of kings, and denounces the previous king of Babylon, but then it talks about peace.

It tells how the god of Babylon – the conquered land – has chosen Cyrus to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and it talks about Cyrus’s efforts in repatriating displaced people and restoring temples across Mesopotamia, letting them worship the god of their choice, not the god of the conqueror. It tells the story of letting people living their lives even after their country was conquered, something that was not heard of at the time. In the ancient world and many years to come, conquering a new land would mean “owning” the land and its people.

Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy.

This cylinder has sometimes been described as the ‘first charter of human rights’, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.